Probably no activity is as closely associated with childhood as play. Children spend a great deal of their time playing -- at home, at school, in parks, in stores, at the dinner table -- wherever and whenever the opportunity arises. Although children from different cultural backgrounds may differ in the amount and nature of their play, the major types of play are found across cultures. Play is not limited to humans however; many young mammals and birds also play, often in ways similar to the play of children.
Given the ubiquity of play, it is not surprising that the major developmental theorists have devoted considerable attention to it (e.g., Bruner, 1972; Erikson, 1977; Freud, 1959; Piaget, 1962; Vygotsky, 1967), as have students of animal behavior ( Bekoff & Byers, 1981; Burghardt, in press; Fagen, 1981; Martin & Caro, 1985; Panksepp, Siviy, & Normansell, 1984). The study of play, however, is still in its infancy. There is little agreement about many basic issues, and, partially as a result of this confusion, interest in children's play appears to have declined in the last 2 decades. Although a core group of play researchers continues to address important questions, much of the major research in children's play was conducted prior to 1980. Several play-related topics have generated considerable interest since this time (e.g., theory of mind, emotional regulation, attachment), but play has shifted from a topic of interest to a context in which to study other developmental phenomena.
The decline in interest in play as a topic is illustrated by comparing the last two editions of the Handbook of Child Psychology (i.e., Damon, 1998; Mussen, 1983). Rubin, Fein, and Vandenberg ( 1983) wrote a chapter for the 1983 edition that reviewed work through the 1970s -- the decade of greatest attention to children's play. In the much-expanded 1998 edition, play had been dropped as a chapter topic. A review of the index of the 4,000-plus-page 1998 edition showed approximately 15 pages referring to play or pretense. Of these, most were short references to the topic, with the